Reply to ‘Why Aren’t Terrorism Experts Looking Right?’

By: Professor Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University

Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation

In “Why Aren’t Terrorism Experts Looking Right?” two cherished alumnae of the Security Studies Program take umbrage that the conference on “What the New Administration Needs to Know About Terrorism and Counterterrorism,” jointly held with the University of St Andrews in January 2017, and the recent special issue of the GSSR which published the conference’s papers, failed to discuss “terrorism in the context of white nationalism and the radical right.”

This is a fair point—though one that was addressed in the question and answer portion of the conference (see the exchanges between the audience and three of the speakers appended below). The broader issues raised in the article about the study and teaching of terrorism and counterterrorism, however, go considerably further than mere grousing about a conference program. Accordingly, they deserve a considered and thorough response.

At the heart of the two alumnae’s complaint is the contention that, “Overall, SSP’s professors and experts at large trend toward treating analysis of the far right as somehow intellectually inferior or less important than analysis of radical Islamic terror.”

As neither of complainants were students in the section of the program’s core concentration course on terrorism and counterterrorism, SEST-546, that I taught, I am perplexed why they would hazard so bold and sweeping a claim.

For instance, every first session of my section of SEST-546 that I have taught for the past thirteen years in SSP addresses the difficulties of defining terrorism. In that context, specific attention is paid to the phenomenon of “leaderless resistance,” accompanied by a detailed discussion of the genesis of that concept and how it originated with American white supremacists during the 1980s and not with either al-Qa’ida or ISIS, as is often assumed. In addition, during both that class and subsequent ones focusing on terrorist tactics and targets, the aims, motivations, and implications of Timothy McVeigh in perpetrating the tragic 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City are also examined. That first class of the semester, I should add, also involves the viewing and critique of a twenty-one minute recruitment video produced by radical American environmentalists advocating violence in pursuit of their political aims.

But this response is not the place to recount the entirety of the syllabus and every detail of the instruction provided in my section of SEST-546. Suffice it to say, the breadth of the course goes far beyond the narrow confines alleged in the two alumnae’s GSSR article and include detailed case studies of the IRA, the Tamil Tigers, and radical left-wing groups, among other terrorist categories.

The course’s core text (as is also the case in other SEST-546 sections) is my book, Inside Terrorism. This book is widely regarded as among the seminal texts on the subject. It has been continuously in print for nearly twenty years and a third edition is scheduled to be published in August. Among the chapters of Inside Terrorism assigned to students in SEST-546 is chapter four, “Religious Terrorism.” That chapter covers adherents of all the world’s major religions who use or have used scripture and clerical authorities to justify and legitimize terrorism. In this context, it is perhaps worth pointing out that nine pages (pp. 89-97) are devoted to terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists. Idiosyncratic, apocalyptic cults merit another nine pages (pp. 118-127). Jewish radicals are covered in the course of a dozen pages (pp. 89-101). The largest section of that chapter, however, is seventeen pages long (pp. 101-118)—and is in fact the one that focuses on the American far right: including white supremacists, violent anti-federalists and other seditious elements, along with militant opponents of legalized abortion.

Because the third edition of Inside Terrorism is currently being typeset, I cannot provide a page count. But the recently revised and updated version of chapter four now devotes 6,088 words to Islamic terrorism—and nearly double that amount (11,073 words) to the violent American far-right.

The authors’ claim is similarly spurious with regard to at least my own scholarship. My first publication ever, some thirty-five years ago, addressed the threat of right-wing terrorism in Europe.[1] I went on to write several more analyses that both updated this original work and drilled down deeper into the emergent neo-Nazi movement and right-wing terrorism in Germany during the 1980s and also then subsequently expanded to include its American counterparts. This work was variously published in scholarly journals; by think-tanks as reports; in Jane’s Intelligence Review; and, as a chapter in an edited book.[2]

Moreover, a landmark 1988 RAND Corporation report I wrote accurately identified American right-wing white supremacists as both the most dangerous terrorists in the country and as the category most likely to perpetrate a mass casualty incident in the United States—an assessment borne out by the Oklahoma City bombing seven years later.[3] Both prior and later co-authored RAND reports (including one published just weeks before the Murrah Building bombing) reached identical conclusions.[4]

I was also among the few foreign experts invited to submit written testimony to Norway’s 22 July Commission, which investigated the horrific 2011 terrorist incidents in that country committed by a Norwegian right-wing terrorist.

The point of this brief account of my curriculum vitae is not to impress the reader with my list of publications but rather to emphasize how terrorism, political violence, and hate crimes committed by right-wing elements have long figured prominently in my research, teaching, and written work over a career that has spanned four decades.

Nor am I unique as a scholar of terrorism with a deep interest in the radically violent American right. The authors of the GSSR article inexplicably ignore the important work by leading academicians such as Michael Barkun,[5] Jeffrey Kaplan,[6] Catherine McNichol Stock,[7] and George Michael[8] (although they do admittedly include Arie Perliger).

I will leave it to my colleagues on the SSP faculty who teach either SEST-546 or another terrorism/counterterrorism to explain their pedagogic approaches and choices. What I can say as director of the program is that the authors are similarly uninformed about the history of both our domestic terrorism and domestic intelligence courses. In fact, a course on domestic terrorism was taught for three semesters between 2011 and 2012 in SSP. It was discontinued only because the instructor was unavailable to teach it and we were unable to engage a suitably qualified successor. Courses on domestic intelligence were taught annually every spring from 2012 until 2015. That course was discontinued because lack of student interest and insufficient enrollment resulted in its cancellation. The two SSP alumnae are indeed correct that SSP responded with alacrity after students at the December 2015 SSP town hall requested that either the domestic terrorism or domestic intelligence course be offered again.

As for the January 2017 conference itself and the publication that followed, it should be explained that invited speakers were given wide latitude in their choice of what aspects of terrorism and counterterrorism they wished to address. It is telling but not surprising that all these distinguished international experts regarded radical Islamic terrorism as the most important threat facing the new presidential administration and frankly of greater consequence than domestic American terrorism. The authors of the GSSR article may disagree with that judgment, but the fact that it reflects the collective wisdom of some of the leading personages in the field is not to denigrate or ignore the domestic threat from far-right radicals but to clearly reveal what these distinguished scholars and practitioners regard as the most consequential.

In their defense, the GSSR article’s authors cite a 2014 survey which “found that state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies consider anti-government violent extremists to be the most severe threat of political violence they face.” This is correct, but requires an important caveat that was omitted. The responses to that survey arguably reflected the emergence of a new far-right extremist entity—the Sovereign Citizens Movement (SCM), whose followers had been implicated in a series of violent encounters involving law enforcement officers. The SCM, in fact, is atypical of this genre. Although it has long styled itself as an exclusionist white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian entity with strong racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, there are nonetheless many African-American, Asian, and other persons of different races and religions who identify themselves as Sovereign Citizens.

The FBI does describe the movement as comprising “anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or ‘sovereign’ from the United States. As a result, they believe that they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments or law enforcement.”[9] But, it should be emphasized that paper, bogus liens, and frivolous lawsuits brought against public officials are the Sovereign Citizens’ preferred weapons—not guns and bombs.[10] The respondents to that 2014 survey doubtless had in mind the slayings in 2003 of two South Carolina police officers over a land dispute; the 2010 killing of two Arkansas policemen during a routine traffic stop; and, the ambush death of a deputy sheriff in Florida in 2010.[11]

To conclude, I would argue that a more accurate indicator of the terrorist threat may perhaps be found in the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists. That compendium currently contains twenty-nine persons. All but two are individuals professing adherence to either the Sunni or Shi’a branches of Islam. And, those two exceptions include a 1960s-era left-wing terrorist and a more contemporary violent animal rights extremist. Revealingly, none conform to the category that the authors allege poses the most serious terrorist threat in America.[12]


Appendix (Conference Q&A Responses)

Panel I: What Next? Global Trends and Threats

1:43:45 (Question from Kate Walsh, SSP Alumna)

“I wanted to turn to a different kind of terrorism—and that’s a domestic one. You mentioned briefly the rise in xenophobic sentiment as well as the demonization of Islam. And that goes hand in hand with this rise of white supremacist or neo-Nazi ideology that’s been exacerbated by political rhetoric. I’m wondering if you could comment on if this would contribute to a rise in domestic terrorism that falls into those categories as we’ve seen terrorists in the past use that kind of ideology to justify violence against minorities, and what the administration can do about that in the United States and also the United Kingdom.”

Response by Bruce Hoffman:

“Terrorism is completely ecumenical as law enforcement and intelligence communities regard it. I don’t think that there’s good terrorism and bad terrorism. I think there’s a question of resources that there’s an enormously greater and I think far more strategic threat that’s posed from the Salafi jihadi movements that let’s say the white supremacist ones, but that doesn’t mean that they’re ignored. I think the tragedy of that sort of terrorism or right-wing terrorism was demonstrated very clearly by Andres Brevik in Norway several years ago when, I think, to everyone’s astonishment, he singlehandedly ripped the face off the major government building in Oslo what would have been assumed to have been a terrorist cell at work and then, of course, inflicted that horrible tragedy at the children’s camp. Sir David painted this multi-layered, increasingly diffuse and complex threat and I think your question very helpfully—perhaps depressingly—fleshes that out further. And this is precisely I think the challenge that law enforcement and intelligence agencies in this country and Europe face. It isn’t just a threat from radical jihadis. There is a threat from xenophobes, from other elements that are far less coordinated, but nonetheless have the ability to inflict an enormous amount of damage and destruction. I think this just speaks to how enormously complex the current threat is, especially at a time of diminished resources.”

Response by Sir David Veness:

“Right-wing extremism and the extreme consequences of Islamophobia are an arguable eight or nine on my list. Why do they matter? Because the short-circuit between those sort of offenses and community fear, and indeed the destruction of a community sense particularly within major cities, is very quick. There is a difference in feeling—I speak as somebody who had these sort of attacks going on as a senior police office at Scotland Yard—the impact on the communities is much worse because this is something that is coming around the corner effectively from within your own related communities, not the rather more distant—although it’s not distant—view of a terrorist threat from overseas. So, I think we ought to be acutely aware, of the fear that this creates inevitably and it clearly should be a continuing focus of our endeavors.”

Panel III: Global Counterterrorism and Regional Structures

54:17 (Question from Sarah Gilkes, SSP Student)

“I’m curious in the US, specifically in the past 12 months in the context of the rise in white nationalist and sovereign citizen organizations and groups, whether you think under-reaction by the administration is an equitable concern and if our attention is not slated proportionally for the different kinds of, what you’ve termed, “terrorisms”?

Response by Richard English:

“Being proportionate about it might mean acting less extravagantly to some terrorisms but it might mean acting more carefully and attentively to some than we currently do. So, I think it’s fairly clear that, on many definitions of terrorism, in the United States, the likelihood of your being killed by one is probably more likely to come from someone from a post-Christian community than from a Muslim. But obviously what the focus for understandable reasons in terms of jihadism and the attacks on American interests, the same thing done by someone who’s not a Muslim and someone who’s a Muslim gets cast in different ways and I think that’s one of the issues that we face. … So what we do sometimes is we look at some communities in different ways and I think that’s part of the challenge. So, my view is that broadly speaking what you should do is where there are things which involve what we can call terrorism, you should respond to it in the best way to try and make human misery reduced. My own view is probably in the United States, and I say this with some hesitancy because I’m not a citizen of the US, my sense is that probably dealing with something between right-wing militias and rightist terrorism attending to that slightly more would be appropriate. I think it would also make attending to jihadist terrorism look more credible; because I think there’s always—you know, terrorists are great at picking out the hypocrisies of the states they’re against—and if you say, “Well, we’re against terrorism.” And they say, “Well, not when it’s done by people who look like you.” It does undermine the credibility. So I think there are good reasons for probably cranking that one up.”


[1] Bruce Hoffman, Right-Wing Terrorism in Europe, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, N-1856-AF, March 1982).

[2] Idem, Right-Wing Terrorism in Germany (London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, Research Report No. 13, December 1986); idem, “Right-Wing Terrorism in Europe Since 1980,” Orbis, issue 28, no. 1, Spring 1984; idem, “Right-Wing Terrorism in Europe,” in Edward Moxon-Browne (ed.), European Terrorism (New York and Toronto: G.K. Hall, 1994); and, idem, “American Right-Wing Extremism,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, vol. 7, no. 7 (July 1995).

[3] Idem, Terrorism in the United States and the Potential Threat to Nuclear Weapons Facilities, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, R-3351-DOE, January 1986).

[4] Idem, Terrorism in the United States and the Potential Threat to Nuclear Weapons Facilities, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, R-3351-DOE, January 1986; and, Kevin Jack Riley and Bruce Hoffman, Domestic Terrorism: A National Assessment of State and Local Preparedness, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, MR-505-NIJ, 1995).

[5] Michael Barkun, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); idem, Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); and, idem, Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[6] Jeffrey Kaplan and Leonard G. Weinberg, The Emergence of a Euro-American Radical Right (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998); Jeffrey Kaplan, Millennial Violence: Past, Present and Future (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002); Radical Religion and Violence: Theory and Case Studies (Abindgdon: Routledge, 2002); idem, Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997).

[7] Catherine McNicol Stock, Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).

[8] George Michael, Confronting Right Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA (Abindgdon: Routledge, 2003); and, idem, Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012).

[9] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Domestic Terrorism: The Sovereign Citizen Movement,” April 13, 2010,

[10] FBI Counterterroism Analysis Section, “Sovereign Citizens: A Growing Threat to Law Enforcement,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 2011),; “Sovereign Citizens Movement,” SPLC website (n.d.),; Caitlin Dickson, “Sovereign Citizens Are America’s Top Cop-Killers,” Daily Beast, November 25, 2014,

[11] Dickson, “Sovereign Citizens Are America’s Top Cop-Killers”; SPLC, “Sovereign Citizens Movement.”

[12] FBI, “Most Wanted Terrorists,” at:

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